Zoe Weil’s TEDx Talk: The World Becomes What You Teach (Full Transcript)

So, that doesn’t tell me very much, I’m going to have to dig a little bit deeper. And if I do some research into cotton and cotton T-shirts, I’m going to find out that cotton is a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, many of which are toxic and we know they’re toxic because of the incredibly cruel tests that were done on animals to test them. We also discover that many of those pesticides end up polluting our soil and our waterways.

Now, if I find out a little bit more about cotton I will come across some information that it’s estimated that a third of cotton is produced in Uzbekistan where by another estimate, there are 1 million children working in those fields as slaves. Now that cotton, after it’s grown, has to be turned into cloth and then it has to be dyed because it didn’t get to be this red color out of the ground.

So if I do some research on the dye I discover that many of those dyes are also toxic and also wind up in our water stream because about 30% of the dye doesn’t adhere to the cotton, and it winds up in the water.

Then, of course the cloth has to go somewhere to be turned into a T-shirt. We know that it went to China, so if we did a little research on Chinese garment factories we would discover that many of them are essentially sweatshops, where people are working exceedingly long hours under terrible working conditions. And then finally it’s going to be transported using lots of fossil fuels so that I can buy it.

So, those are just some of the effects and some of the negative effects. The positive ones are a little bit easier to see. We know that even if there was slave labor involved in this it certainly did contribute to a lot of people having jobs, and it’s produced in a way that’s inexpensive, so that I can get lots of these in all different colors and shapes and styles, some of which might look cute on me which might make me feel good about myself. So there are some positive effects.

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Now, we ask two other important questions in “true price”. We ask, “What alternatives would do more good and less harm in this conventional product, and what are the systems that would need to be transformed in order to make those alternatives ubiquitous?” Well, after the talk was over, a colleague of mine asked one of the inductees what she thought of it? And she said that it made her really angry because, this is a quote, “We should’ve been learning this since kindergarten”. I agree.

So in answer to the question, “Do I think that it’s fair to provide this form of education to our students?” I actually think it’s unfair not to provide the knowledge and the skills to our students, to our children so that they can be solutionaries for a better world.

Now, let’s say we were to actually embrace this larger purpose for schooling. What would our schools look like? Well, first of all, any of these objects could be a course in a school. And it would be a course that would be relevant to our students’ lives and their future and their health and the health of their planet. And all of the basics would serve that course, because in the process of answering those questions we would be studying math and science, and history and social studies, and economics, and politics, and language arts and many other subjects. We could have overarching themes for each year of school, one year it might be food and water, another year it could be energy and transportation, another year it could be buildings and structures, another year it could be protection and conflict resolution. We can’t live without all of those things.

So, what if the basics were in service to figuring out how we could make all of those systems as humane and sustainable and peaceful and just as possible? Last year I was driving my car and I was listening to NPR on the radio, and there was a report about an Oxford style debate that was being conducted at the New York University. And the subject of the debate was this question, “Is the United States responsible for Mexico’s drug woes?” I remember sitting in my car thinking, “That’s really a bizarre question. Because how could anything as complicated as Mexico’s drug woes be reduced to an either-or question about another nation’s culpability?” It seemed a bizarre question. But it got me thinking about all the debate teams in all the schools where kids are arbitrarily assigned one side or another of a fabricated either-or scenario, and they are taught to research it, and they’re told to argue it and win. To what end?

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What if instead of having debate teams, we had solutionary teams? We had students tackling problems and competing — we love to do that — but we have them competing about who could come up with the most viable, cost effective, innovative solutions to those problems. Those problems could be ones in their own school, they could be ones in their community, they could be ones that are global problems. And those students could compete within their schools, and then they could compete with other local schools, and then they could go to states. And then, the really brilliant ideas, we could implement them.

Imagine what would happen. Imagine what would happen if we embraced this vision of schooling. What would our graduates go on to do? Well, they would do the same that graduates do today. They’d be business people, and healthcare providers and plumbers and engineers and architects, and beauticians and politicians. The difference would be, they would perceive themselves as solutionaries. They would know that it was their responsibility to ensure that the systems within their profession were just and humane and peaceful. Why? Because that is what they would have learned in school.

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